Race-bending: always controversial, occasionally enlightening, never boring.
When reading the ASOIAF books for the first time I didn’t find myself inclined towards race-bending anyone, mainly because there were characters of multiple races right out of the gate. There is the Andal/First Men issue that comes up right away in Cat’s first chapter, as each have different religions and customs (and those of First Men blood seem to tend more toward dark hair and eyes whereas blonde, blue- or green-eyed families are more likely to be Andal). Jalabar Xo is a constant fixture at court in King’s Landing, letting us know that there is a politically complicated Caribbean-ish culture somewhere out there. Dany’s storyline is extremely multiracial. Wildlings, despite being physically similar to Northerners, are regarded as a different race with plenty of accompanying racism. Dornish racism appears early via the story of Elia Martel and her children and is a constant throughout the series.
(I am perhaps calling things different races that are presented & perceived by other readers more as different cultures, but in my modern American world having a particular ancestral location + a particular culture/language + particular physical traits gets you counted as a race, so that’s how I’m going to discuss things.)
My only race-based thoughts during my first reading were that it’d be interesting to have the POV of a nonwhite Essosi character, especially a Dothraki or a Meereneese character. Since Dany (and later Barristan) is kinda racist and it would be nice to have a narrative POV to humanize these groups from the inside rather than always having to parse out the reality from Westerosi bias. (I still think that, and hope vaguely for a Dothraki prolog in Winds of Winter. Maybe a Dosh Khaleen?)
Fast forward to several years and re-reads later. My own obsession with and knowledge of ASOIAF has grown, while Game of Thrones has become a cultural phenomenon, not to mention a secondary obsession of mine.
But alas, a fan cannot live on GoT casting news and ASOIAF fan theories alone. I do read other things. Over the past several months I’ve been reading a lot of NK Jemisin and Octavia Butler, which led me to get a book of essays on AfroFuturism, which I would summarize as “black writers & artists creating their own damn SFF.”
Reading these essays, the World of Ice and Fire, Jemisin’s Fifth Season and Butler’s Xenogenesis series in close proximity to each other led me to an interesting race-bendy thought experiment:
What if the Rhoynar were black?
Why the Rhoynar specifically? Why not the Targaryens, or the Iron Islanders, or the First Men?
There are certain themes already intertwined with the Rhoynar that coincide with themes that have already been and are still being explored by black SFF writers in regards to their black characters. Basically, the Rhoynar share a lot of overlapping issues with African diaspora peoples.
The most obvious one is the theme of simply being a diaspora people—a race that exited its homeland in huge numbers and ended up scattered to different places. This is already half the point of the Rhoynar, and the theme of being forced to emigrate and travel large distances is a theme that definitely comes up in the works of award-winning SFF writers Nora Jemisin and Octavia Butler. Butler’s Xenogenesis features an alien race that left its home planet in a literally universal diaspora, who then cause a forced human diaspora that both displaces some humans to completely different parts of the planet and sees others forced off of Earth entirely. Parable of the Sower sees the birth of a religion that recommends humanity leaving its post-apocalyptic situation to live in space. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season takes place in a world with almost regular apocalypses, each of which force mass migration. Her earlier book The Broken Kingdoms features a main character whose people were forced to migrate when their entire continent was destroyed in a gods’ war.
It’s not difficult to imagine why this theme would come up in connection to black SFF writers and characters. Certainly no more difficult than imagining why the theme of voluntarily exploring/settling new lands (and dealing with inconvenient natives) (often for the purpose of escaping an entrenched classist society back home) comes up repeatedly in white SFF.
Another theme attached to the Rhoynar that would make them potentially even-more-interesting as black characters is the entire reason for their diaspora: colonialist expansion. The Rhoynar are driven to migrate because of aggression from the expansion of the Valerian colonies. There is already a racial subtext to the Valerians, simply because they are SO white, so supremely blonde and blue-eyed that they are sometimes even white-haired and violet-eyed. By virtue of how colors work everyone they enslave is therefore of a darker complexion, i.e. less white, than they are. So simply by their description they are not only slavers and colonialists but white slavers and white colonialist—in fact they are The Whitest Slavers and The Whitest Colonialists.
Notably, neither the Valerians in general nor the Targaryens in particular ever win battles or gain power because of some innate virtue. They aren’t, for example, smarter or better at working together than other peoples. They simply have better firepower, i.e. dragons. (And in the case of the Targaryens, better access to information—i.e. prophecy.)
Once the Targs lose their firepower advantage, they’ve already entrenched a system that privileges them over other houses. But when their information privilege becomes corrupted (i.e. prophecies are followed but not understood) their clear advantage over other houses begins to crumble.
Perhaps because the two particular black SFF authors I’ve read extensively are both women, the theme of matriarchy is also one that I’ve encountered repeatedly in both bodies of work. Specifically the theme of matriarchy versus patriarchy: female leaders rising in the absence of viable male leaders; female leaders being challenged/disrespected based on their female-ness; cultures that are matriarchal conflicting with cultures that are patriarchal; matriarchal vs. patriarchal views on sexuality and marriage/coupledom.
The gender-equal Rhoynar became, upon their diaspora, completely matriarchal due to being led by Nymeria and because the diaspora was almost entirely female. The problems they encountered during their journey to a new homeland were often gendered, such as women being kidnapped by raiders to become sexual captives/slaves. Many Rhoynish women leave the group voluntarily because they want to get married. Once Nymeria and company reach Dorne, she puts down roots by way of a marriage-merger with House Martel. The matriarchal Rhoynish Diaspora and the patriarchal Andal house of Martel split the difference by declaring absolute primogeniture. This is perhaps an unrealistically neat solution to the matriarchy/patriarchy conflict, but it’s made clear that Nymeria and many Rhoynish women are also also skilled in battle theory & practice, and they use this as leverage to insure their status as equals to the Andal men. Realistic enough for fantasy, I suppose. J And of course things get and stay messy once the gender-equal Rhoyno-Andal culture of Dorne comes into conflict with the patriarchal Andal-dominant* culture of Westeros at large.
*Yes, Westeros was been under Targaryen/Valerian rule for 300 years, but even if the Valerians were not patriarchal (I believe it is rather unclear whether they were or not) the Targaryens adopted many Andal ways, including male primogeniture. And let’s not forget that even though Queen Visenya was a complete dragon-riding, Dark Sister-wielding badass, she did not challenge the idea that a woman should please her husband or that a man had a right to beat his wife. I doubt Nymeria would have agreed with those notions.
One of the most prominent things about the Rhoynar is that they were forced to blend with the Andals already living in Dorne. So few Rhoynar men were left after the final war with the Valerians that Nymeria and company had to either intermarry with another group of people or invent highly advanced magical gene manipulation on the fly.
I find this not-incomparable to the human conundrum in Butler’s Xenogenesis series, in which aliens arrive just after a massive nuclear war, rescue the survivors, clean up the radioactive pollution, but also destroy all remnants of human societies and give the human survivors the ultimatum of having half-alien babies or no babies at all.
More authoritative critics than me have pointed out the parallels between Lilith, protagonist of Xenogenesis, and African slave women who were forced to have the children of their masters. Another of Butler’s novels, Kindred, explores the dilemma of a black woman who is pulled back in time to rescue a slave-owning white ancestor.
The women of Nymeria’s diaspora were not enslaved by the Dornish, but due to circumstances they still largely faced the dilemma of having either half-Andal children or no children at all. By the time of the main action in ASOIAF, there are still people who keep as closely as possible to Rhoynish culture, not accepting Andal religion and living on river boats. But given the near-lack of Rhoynish men in the diaspora it’s hard to imagine that they are genetically full Rhoynish. In fact it’s hard to imagine that any full-Rhoynish people exist in Westeros, thanks to the choices forced on them by Valyrian colonialist expansion. The Rhoynish impact on Dorne remains enormous, and almost everything Westerosi think of as Dornish customs are in fact Rhoynish customs or a version thereof. But the Rhoynish language is dead in Westeros as far as we know (though a distinct accent survives), and the existence of pure Rhoynish blood must be extremely sparse at best.
Largely due to being visually and culturally different from the rest of Westeros, the Dornish are often the targets of racism. This is not helped by the fact that the Dornish fought many wars with the people of the Reach and the Stormlands over the years, or that the Dornish were able to maintain military independence even from the Targaryens and thus leveraged an extremely favorable situation when they eventually joined Westeros with a marriage pact.
Dornish women are hypersexualized in the fevered imagination of other Westerosi, and Dornish men are regarded as overly violent. Seducing a Dornish woman away from a Dornish man is considered to be a lofty achievement of manhood. (Looking at you, Mance. New essay topic: Mance the Wildling and How Oppressed Peoples Can Also Be Racist). Actually I think these things are probably part of every variety of racism all over the world, but if you are American it probably rings some fairly specific bells. Or not. We do have multiple varieties of racism right here in the old US of A. Characterizing the Other as hyperactive in the areas of sex and violence is pretty much a go-to move by Racists Everywhere.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MEXICANS™?
I really hope no one has actually said these exact words to themselves while reading this essay. But it’s worth bringing up the fact that many readers see Dorne as being analogous to either Spain or Latin America, and the Dornish racism as being a paralel to racism between the whiter parts of Western Europe and the more racially mixed areas of Spain. And/or the racism of ‘murica against The Mexicans™. The Mexicans™ is, by the way, a trademark of All The People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Ask or Look at a Map. Which is a lot of ‘murica.
Ahem. End soapbox.
But here I am, saying that the theme of Dornish racism would perhaps apply even better, or more pertinently, or more interestingly, if the main cultural and racial influence of Dorne were from people of sub-Saharan African complexion rather than people of an indigenous-Americas complexion.
I am not in any way saying that Latino/a people do not experience significant racism. In fact people who appear to have IA blood generally experience racism on a sliding scale of more=worse, in every part of the Americas.
So, what am I saying?
The Rhoynish as an African-diaspora analog would, IMO, make more sense than the Rhoynish as an indigenous-Americans analog. First of all, the indigenous Americans were, well, indigenous. Meaning they were here first. Whereas in the case of the Rhoynar, the Andals were there first.
Besides, we already have a pretty good IA analog with the First Men. Not perfect, but better than the Rhoynar. Arrived by way of land bridge, often featuring nature spirits as part of the religion, often honoring the souls of ancestors as present and active in the world, survivors forced to live where the dominant race doesn’t care to settle. Those who keep the old ways generally regarded as barbarians and savages. Check, check, check, check.
According to the Worldbook the First Men didn’t really settle in Dorne. So Dorne being the region most-influenced by the culture of IA’s (Greater IA influence being a significant part of the difference between RL Latin America vs. Anglo America) doesn’t make any sense at all. Dorn’s primary cultural influence is from a people who arrived later, on ships, not by choice, in a mass migration forced by white colonizers.
So the big retrospective race question hanging over ASOIAF/GOT shouldn’t be “Why didn’t GRRM make the Targaryens black?”
It should be “Why didn’t he make the Rhoynish black, seeing as how they are practically Africa-diaspora analogs already?”
Done is done, but I think the Rhoynish/Africa diaspora paralels are good food for thought.